SERAPH



SERAPH, by Ian McHugh

 

There was another frost the next morning, and snow starting to fall.

“It should be getting warmer,” said Galya, following her mother to the seraph’s chamber beneath the keep. The cold made her limbs ache, even through fleece-lined boots and gloves and with several layers of undergarments. She could hear Yoshin’s teeth chattering, and her younger brother was so swaddled he could barely hold his arms to his sides.

Oksana, their mother, wasn’t really listening. “I hope this cold ends soon,” she said.

People were out in the fields, salvaging what they could of the spring seedlings, at time when they should have been planting more. A procession of barrows rolled back and forth from the fields through the castle gate, snaking between the sheds and stables that bounded the caravan yard to reach the greenhouses nestled in the lee of the curtain wall.

Closer to the keep, away from the wall, things looked almost normal, the dormitory blocks and terraces of family cottages barely touched by the frost. Smoke rose from workshop chimneys and people went about their usual business. Only the heaviness of their clothes was wrong for the season.

Yoshin pulled down the scarf from his face to ask, “Is winter coming back, Mother?”

Oksana didn’t answer.

There was wyrd at work. Galya was sure that was true. Something was bringing this cold.

It was the seraph’s wyrd that kept the castle warm, kept its occupants from freezing through the dead months of winter. It reached out as far as the castle wall, now, but only barely. It should have pushed this weather back to the fringes of the forest, past the perimeter stockade.

But something was pushing back.

 

#

 

The seraph’s chamber was always the one place in the castle where it was truly hot. Galya wondered, as she and Yoshin followed their mother in, stripping off gloves and hoods and unbuttoning jackets, whether it was quite as hot as it should be.

The seraph curled, nose to tail, on the dais, where she slept every winter, beneath the ikons of Mater Mundi, the Arkangel and Pantokrator. Nadhzeya, the chaplain, and a couple of her novices were in the chamber, too. The novices did a creditable impression of polishing fixtures while they watched from the corners of their eyes. The chamber’s fixtures all had some purpose but, as with much inside the keep, those purposes were largely mysterious. The keep, with its walls of smooth, seamless stone, translucent like clouded glass, dated from before the Wyrding Wars.

The seraph, too, was a thing of the old world, of Before. Their seraph should not have been in the chamber, this day. She should have been out basking in the spring sunshine, or taking gliding leaps over the castle walls, her dozen wings outstretched. But there was no spring sun, and the seraph hadn’t moved.

Her brass flanks rose and fell with each slow breath, her wings furled tightly along the curve of her spine. The seraph’s long crocodile muzzle rested on her front paws, the bladed end of her whip tail spread in front of her snout like a fan. It seemed to Galya that the seraph’s glow was duller than it should be, her long breaths – perhaps – a little laboured. Beside her on the dais, the seraph’s dish of coal bricks appeared untouched.

The seraph opened her eyes at their approach, amber and still bright with internal fire. She blinked slowly as Oksana knelt beside Nadhzeya by the edge of the dais, Galya and Yoshin kneeling behind them, all three touching their fingertips to brows and breastbones.

“What’s wrong with her?” asked Oksana.

Nadhzeya tugged at a tuft of the rough-cut hair that stuck out at wild angles from her head. She rocked back and forth. Like a madwoman, thought Galya.

“I don’t know,” Nadhzeya said. “Our seraph is ill, but she has never been ill before. We know so much less than we should.”

Oksana asked, “Is it because of this other wyrd? The thing you say is bringing this cold?”

Galya started. So, I was right about that, she thought. But no, the seraph’s illness wasn’t because of the other wyrd.

Nadhzeya shook her head. “I don’t believe so.”

But this cold made it worse, Galya added to herself. Aloud, she said, “Our seraph is having to work to keep us warm, when she shouldn’t be.”

Oksana looked around, as if surprised to find her there. “Not at this time of year,” she agreed.

“Everyone must come inside the walls,” Nadhzeya said.

Oksana gave her a hard frown, then turned the expression on the seraph. “This thing – this cold wyrd – is it a danger to us?”

Nadhzeya waved a hand, her face miserable. “I can’t see it clearly. But I think… Yes, everyone should come inside.”

The seraph watched in silence. Her amber eyes shifted from Nadhzeya to Galya. The seraph knew this other wyrd, but the shape in Galya’s mind was dim, different to the seraph but as unclear to Galya as it was to Nadhzeya. There was danger, Galya was sure, but… the seraph felt pity, too.

“Everyone must come inside,” Galya said, softly.

 

#

 

There were frosts for the next three days, but nothing emerged from the forest, no dark shape of the wyrd thing that still filled the seraph’s thoughts. Galya remained filled with dread.

It was Irakliy, of course, who spoke for the dissenters, although he was less than a handful of years older than Galya, and she was only barely counted as an adult. “Let us take the flocks out,” he said, “while there’s still something for them to eat. Let’s not waste everything.”

Say no, Galya thought. Her chest felt like it was full of fluttering birds, watching him. Irakliy was short and broad, with a thatch of blond hair and patchy blond beard and pale eyes. His lips were full and pink. Galya was fascinated by the way they moved when he spoke. She found herself stooping, so as not to tower over him the way her mother did.

“There is wyrd in this cold,” Oksana replied, as close as she would come to admitting uncertainty. Her face was as smooth and serene as Mater Mundi’s, except for a tiny crease between her brows.

Irakliy said, “There have been late frosts before.”

But never days and days of cold and snow, not this long after equinox.

Oksana rapped her knuckles on the barrel of the large cannon that stood atop the gatehouse. She nodded. “Very well, but keep them close to the gate. I want archers out with the shepherds and up on the wall. Bring all the light cannons over to this wall.” The castle had two heavy cannons on opposite sides of its wall, and three smaller pieces. There were more emplacements for them than there were guns. Oksana shivered, which seemed to irritate her. “And light the fire bins. If we’re going to be standing up here in this damn weather, we might as well have some heat.”

“Yes, Oksana.”

Galya watched Irakliy disappear down the steps into the gatehouse.

Oksana sniffed, sharply. “Perhaps Nadhzeya’s insight is no longer clear.”

“It’s not Nadhzeya that has become unclear,” Galya said, softly enough that she half expected her mother not to hear.

Oksana nodded, though. “I fear our seraph’s mind wanders. I fear that what she sees is the shadow of her own death.”

Galya realised with a start that her mother was confiding in her – speaking to her like another adult.

Beneath their feet, the gatehouse reverberated of the gate machinery clanking into action. A mistake, Galya had no doubt. The seraph was still clear about one thing: something was coming. But there was no point in arguing once Oksana had made up her mind.

Her mother looked her up and down. “Stand up straight, won’t you?”

 

#

 

Galya found Nadhzeya in the seraph’s chamber, bowed over on her knees while she prayed to the ikons. The chaplain’s fists were clenched against her temples, a string of prayer beads stretched between them. One of the seraph’s ears twitched at Galya’s approach, but her eyes remained closed.

Galya lifted her gaze to the ikons on the wall, Mater Mundi in pride of place between and above the angel she had seduced and the hidden son of their union, who would return and lead humanity against the legions of heaven in the days of Judgement. Galya wondered if Mater Mundi was watching.

“You hear her clearly now,” said Nadhzeya. The imprint of the prayer beads was clear on the chaplain’s brow.

The seraph, she meant, not Mater Mundi. “You knew,” Galya said.

Nadhzeya nodded.

“Irakliy has convinced Mother to take the flocks out.”

Nadhzeya swore softly. She lifted herself up to perch on the edge of the dais. Her joints creaked ashe leaned her elbows wearily on her knees. “What does our seraph say to you, about her illness?”

The seraph opened her eyes and Galya met the amber stare. The seraph did not really ‘say’. Wordless fragments of thought and dream flitted through Galya’s mind. “I think…” Galya hesitated, afraid to sound foolish. “I think she’s not ill. But… but she will die soon. And live.” She shook her head. “It’s confusing.”

“You see what I see,” said Nadhzeya. One hand strayed up, as if of its own accord, plucking at her tufted hair with forefinger and thumb. “Our seraph is old,” she said. “The wyrd is fading from her.”

Galya asked, “Will her fire go out?”

“Yes.”

And their seraph would die. And what would happen to them, then?

Nadhzeya clapped her hand on Galya’s knee, making her jump. “Come, we must get your mother to bring everyone back inside.”

“The seraph isn’t afraid,” said Galya.

“Our seraph is never afraid,” Nadhzeya said. “But she thinks we should be.”

The seraph lifted her head and sniffed at her dish. Her forked tongue curled out from between her crocodile jaws to snag a piece of coal. She got up onto her elbows, leaning over the dish. Galya and Nadhzeya watched while the seraph crunched down the bricks. The burning gaze turned towards them.

More.

Nadhzeya was up, snapping her fingers. “More coal!”

 

#

 

Oksana was still up on the gatehouse roof, a telescope to her eye and a strung longbow and quiver of arrows leaning against the parapet in front of her. There was a second bow and quiver beside the first. For me, Galya realised.

“Oksana!” Nadhzeya called.

The gun crew, huddled around a fire bin beside the heavy cannon, looked up. Oksana continued to scan the forest beyond the perimeter stockade. Others were doing the same, at the watchtowers along the walls and up on the roof of the keep.

Yoshin would be among the shepherds – not the youngest among them, but nearly so. The sheep and goats had fanned out across the fields between the castle wall and the stockade, needing no encouragement once they found themselves turned towards the crops, rather than away. Galya couldn’t see her brother, but she spied Irakliy’s white-blond head, out beyond the furthest of the shepherds with his squad of archers.

Nadhzeya tried again. “Oksana, you must bring them back in.”

Oksana lowered her scope. “Storm.”

Galya looked. Swirling clouds boiled through the gap between two hills, slate grey and low. They spread, swallowing the hills.

“It’s coming fast,” said Oksana. She leaned over the parapet and raised her voice. “Bring in the flocks!”

The nearest shepherds looked up. Oksana pointed to the rushing stormfront. “Storm! Bring them in!”

Urgency smacked into Galya’s mind like a physical blow. She gasped, steadying herself against the parapet. Nadhzeya gave a cry of dismay.

“Mother…” Galya croaked.

Oksana only needed to look at their faces. “Ready the guns!”

The gunners by the big cannon stared. “To shoot at a storm, Oksana?”

“Do it!” They jumped to their tasks. Galya was reaching for her bow before her mother yelled, “Archers! To arms!”

The cry was taken up along the wall.

The shepherds all looked up. Oksana leaned over the parapet. “Bring them in!”

“Mother!” Galya pointed. Ahead of the storm, treetops waved wildly, as if something huge was pushing between their trunks. The sound of crashing wood reached their ears.

“Mater Mundi.”

Nadhzeya leaned out to scream at the shepherds, “Leave them! Leave the flocks! Inside!”

Irakliy was already shoving the shepherds ahead of him. Galya looked for Yoshin, but still couldn’t find him in the confusion of jostling bodies.

A roar made the stone under her feet tremble. An immense shape burst from the edge of the forest. Thick limbed and hump-shouldered – bear shaped, but monstrously large. In the shadow of the storm, its hide looked dark grey and metallic, like iron. It hit the stockade without breaking stride. Heavy logs cartwheeled through the air like thrown twigs.

The cannons boomed in a ragged salvo. Earth exploded around the charging beast. Galya was certain that at least one shot was directly on target, but the bear-thing just ducked into the impact and didn’t slow. Its skin was iron.

The first of the shepherds were coming through the gate, a few goats running with them. Most of the sheep had scattered. The iron bear swerved aside. Galya saw it snap up a sheep, swallowing the animal in two bites. It batted another up into the air and caught it between its jaws.

The bear skidded to a halt, facing the castle. Its head came up.

Irakliy’s archers stood in a line, arrows nocked, guarding the retreat of the shepherds. Sleet whirled around them. The storm had swallowed the forest. The bear pawed the ground. Its eyes burned like pale blue torches, full of fury and bottomless hurt.

Galya found her voice. “Run!” she screamed. “Run!”

Her cries were drowned by the bear’s booming challenge. It bounded forward, a heartbeat before the stormfront swept over it and it was lost from sight..

The archers held for a heartbeat, then all of them broke and ran for the gate. The storm overtook them first. It burst upward when it struck the castle wall, only a few spatters of sleet passing the parapet.

The seraph’s defences were holding at the wall.

Oksana shouted down into the gatehouse, “Are all of them in? Close the gate!”

Galya abandoned her post and ran to look down at the shepherds and archers clustered in the entry yard, slumped or standing, hugging loved ones.

“Yoshin!” She didn’t see him.

A man pushed through the crowd. “Feodra! Where is Feodra?”

Irakliy looked up, his eyes finding Galya’s. He moved, sprinting back into the gatehouse tunnel.

“Irakliy!”

She ran back to the outer parapet, but could see nothing through the wildness of the storm. The bear roared, terrifyingly close.

Yoshin! Irakliy! Galya’s heart felt like a lump of stone.

Cries erupted along the wall. From her vantage on the gatehouse, Galya could see down the front of the curtain. “There!”

Three figures huddled at the foot of the wall. Someone shouted for rope. One was quickly found and thrown down. The first climber was small. Yoshin! Irakliy and the other shepherd, Feodra, followed him.

The bear roared again. It sounded to Galya as if it was directly underneath her. She saw it, moving through the blizzard towards the climbers.

Arrows peppered it, bouncing harmlessly off its iron skin. The big cannon boomed, the recoil lifting its wheels high off the stones. The gunners had its barrel angled down as far as they could. At this range, the impact made the bear stagger and looked to have dented its iron skin.

It stopped and turned its head, mouth opening. Galya felt the blast of its mind the way she felt the seraph. The bear’s thoughts were full of madness, anguish, loss, of hunger that could never be sated. She saw the ice-blue glow of its throat, saw the frost swirl between its teeth.

“Down!” she cried.

Her mother was watching the climbers. Galya grabbed her and dragged her down, sprawling together in the shelter of the parapet. The gunners flung themselves away from their cannon as shredding hail blasted over the gatehouse roof. When Galya looked up, the cannon’s barrel was covered in wind-spiked ice. The hot metal pinged rapidly. Then, with a resounding crack, split. A couple of the gunners cried out as they were showered with metal shards.

Galya scrambled to her feet. The bear had turned back towards the climbers. None of them were up. Yoshin clung to the rope, just out of reach of the archers on the battlement, his strength gone, Feodra and Irakliy helpless below him.

Fire! The thought was not her own. Fire would hurt it. Galya looked wildly about. Her eyes fell on the fire bin, Nadhzeya crouched beside it.

“Nadzheya! Help me!”

Galya covered her hands as best she could with her sleeves. Nadzheya did the same and they lifted the bin towards the parapet. Galya bit down on a cry as the hot metal seared her skin.

The bear galloped past the corner of the gatehouse. They weren’t going to be able to lift the bin over.

Galya screamed. “No!”

Then the weight of the bin eased. Oksana had joined them. The fire bin arced down towards the monster, trailing sparks. It struck the bear on the shoulder, spraying it with coals. The beast’s roar turned into a howl of pain.

“Fire hurts it!” Oksana cried. She had not covered her hands at all and they were blistered and bloody. Galya’s hands shook with the pain of her own burned fingers and palms.

Along the wall, the small cannons boomed, peppering the bear around the head and shoulders.

One of the gunners ran up to the parapet and heaved something over. A wooden barrel followed the trajectory of the fire bin, its top alight. It burst at the bear’s feet with a whoosh of flames. Gunpowder!

Two more gunners, their hands protected by heavy gloves, flung a second fire bin high into the air. The bear jumped aside before it could hit.

It bellowed once more, defiantly, and vanished back into the storm.

The archers on the wall had got hold of Yoshin and were hauling him up. Irakliy and Feodra climbed after him.

 

#

 

The wind and snow blew around the walls for the rest of the day, as the iron bear continued to test the seraph’s defences. The storm abated around dusk. In the failing light, the defenders could see the bear roaming out near the stockade. Occasionally, the faint, terrified bleating of sheep would reach the walls as the monster hunted them down.

Galya stayed beside her mother while healers salved and bandaged their burns and Nadhzeya’s. Oksana had told her to go and rest, but Galya refused to leave the wall. Yoshin tucked himself under Oksana’s arm, silent and pale. When the healer tried to take him and make him rest, he fought, clinging to his mother but still making no sound. Oksana waved the man away.

Irakliy stood before Oksana. The castle’s other leaders gathered round.

“You risked yourself for my son,” she said.

He waved the thanks away. “And Galya’s quick thought saved my life, as well Yoshin’s.” His eyes sought Galya’s face and Galya felt her skin heat. “We should have had more faith in Nadhzeya and our seraph.”

Oksana’s eyebrows rose. Nadzheya tugged distractedly at her hair.

“This beast was made for the Wyrding Wars,” Irakliy went on saying what they all knew, but that no-one else, yet, had been willing to speak aloud. The bear was a thing from Before, like the seraph, when humankind still wielded the wyrd for themselves. “We can’t fight it. Our seraph is too weak, or else she would have stood beside us today. We must withdraw into the keep and seal the doors.” There were nods of agreement from around the circle.

“We don’t know that the seraph is too weak,” said Oksana.

Galya was less certain. Even this far from the keep, she could feel the strain radiating from the seraph as the iron bear probed her defenses.

“The keep is built to withstand wyrd,” Irakliy insisted.

“Not indefinitely,” said Nadzheya.

“Then what? Oksana?”

The seraph has to fight it, thought Galya. Only when everyone looked at her in surprise did she realise she had spoken aloud. She froze.

For an unguarded moment, Galya saw pain on her mother’s face. Oksana’s hands must have been in agony. Galya’s throbbed unbearably, despite the partial protection her sleeves had offered. Then Oksana smoothed her features, and she was as serene as Mater Mundi once more. “Can she defeat it?”

“We don’t know,” said Nadhzeya, her eyes still on Galya.

“And if she can’t?” asked Irakliy.

Then the seraph would die, and so would they all. Out in the night beyond the wall, the bear roared. Its voice was a lament of such emptiness it left Galya feeling as if she had been punched in the heart.

“We must add what strength we have to hers,” said Oksana.

“Will it be enough?”

She showed Irakliy a smile, lopsided and mirthless. “If not, then the outcome is the same.”

Irakliy grunted, unconvinced.

“Fire hurts it,” Oksana said. She stood, reaching a hand for Galya’s shoulder. She reconsidered and turned her wrist, brushing her daughter’s hair with the back of her bandaged fingers, instead. “As Galya showed us. We are not completely helpless.”

 

#

 

When the others had gone, Galya stood with her mother, looking out at the dark. Yoshin, exhausted, had consented to Irakliy carrying him away for bed.

“He’ll be alright,” said Oksana.

If any of us are, thought Galya. “Do your hands hurt much?”

Her mother grimaced. “Like you would not believe. Yours?”

“A lot.”

They were quiet for a time. Timbers screeched in protest, somewhere in the distance. The bear, breaking another hole in the stockade.

“You knew, didn’t you, that I can see the seraph’s mind?” Galya said. It wasn’t really a question. “Why didn’t you give me to Nadhzeya as a novice?”

Oksana didn’t look at her, and Galya wondered if the question would go unanswered. Then, “I didn’t want you constrained by a priest’s vows if you might lead our people one day.”

Galya stared, struck dumb, not sure that she had heard right.

A faint smile lifted the corners of her mother’s mouth. “You or Irakliy, or both of you together.”

Galya’s face went hot from her hairline to her chin. Oksana laughed.

She put her arm around Galya and pulled her into a hug, just for a moment, her wrist cocked to avoid making contact with her palm.

“You proved me right, today. Come, we should see what we can do to help.”

 

#

 

The seraph was alone, her glow so dim that her chamber was nearly dark. She shifted at Galya’s approach and opened her eyes. Galya winced at their sudden brightness.

She wove a little, crossing the floor to the dais, so tired that she felt giddy. The throbbing of her burned hands pulsed up her arms and neck and into her brain.

The seraph lifted the brass fan of her tail from in front of her snout and shifted her paw back from the edge of the dais. An invitation.

Galya hesitated. If she knelt first, she wasn’t sure she would get up again. Hesitantly, she perched on the edge of the dais.

The seraph raised her head. Her hot breath washed over Galya’s face and chest. She lifted her snout. A command. Galya hesitated. The seraph watched, patient.

Slowly, Galya raised her bandaged fingers. The seraph remained motionless, her gaze undeniable. Tentatively, Galya reached out towards the seraph’s muzzle. She stopped without quite touching. After a pause, the seraph pushed her head forward, closing the gap. The metal was hot against Galya’s palm, even through the bandages, painful on her burned skin. She could scarcely breath. Tremors ran up and down her arm. The seraph held the pose for a long moment, then sat back, regarding Galya levelly. Galya withdrew her arm. The tremors shook her whole body.

She gathered her composure.

“I saw it,” she said. “An iron bear.” She hesitated, then added, “You know it, don’t you? You’ve met it before.”

The seraph radiated agreement.

“It’s in pain.” Her stomach knotted with the memory of that gaping, incurable hurt.

A wave of sorrow and pity washed over her.

“It can’t be healed,” Galya said. There was no need to make it a question. “And it won’t leave of its own accord.” She blinked back stinging tears. She could see what must be done, what the seraph knew.

The seraph shifted further back from the edge of the dais and lowered her head back onto her paws. All of a sudden, Galya could no longer fight her exhaustion. Scarcely able to think what she was doing, she curled up on her side beside the seraph. The seraph’s tail curled around, enclosing her.

 

#

 

She awoke with a start and sat straight up.

There was a clatter and a yelp. A pair of novices, who had been carrying the seraph’s morning coal, gaped at her. The seraph looked at her with an air of patience, as if she had been waiting for some time for Galya to wake.

Galya’s throat was parched, her mouth gluey. She swallowed. What the seraph knew had not changed. Galya bowed her head.

She heard the bear’s mournful roar the moment she stepped outside the keep. The cold was a shock, stinging the bare skin of her face like nettles of ice.

She found her mother having breakfast. The dark bruises around Oksana’s eyes suggested that she had not slept at all. Blood had seeped through her bandages.

“We have to bring it inside the wall,” Galya said. “Our seraph cannot face it outside. We have to bring it in, where she is stronger. We have to help her.”

 

#

 

The bear returned in the grey hour before dawn of the next day, galloping out of the gloom and charging directly at the castle gate. The whole gatehouse shook from the impact. The bear’s roar echoed through the gateway tunnel.

“It’s freezing the gate!” someone cried.

“We’re not ready!” Galya said to her mother.

“We’ll have to be,” said Oksana. “Slow it down.”

The gatehouse shuddered again as Galya joined the other archers at the parapet, hastily stabbing their wrapped arrows into the fire bins. The tarred cloth caught light almost instantly.

Galya gritted her teeth at the rasp of the bowstring across her injured fingers. She drew quickly and leaned out over the parapet, firing down at the bear’s exposed back. The other archers did the same. Each flame stuck for a moment before it fell away. The bear howled and reared, smashing its head against the gateway arch. Stones tumbled around it.

The bear stretched up on its hind legs. Its front paws reached almost to the battlements. Galya saw the mad hate in its blue eyes, the freezing glow in its throat as it drew breath.

“Down!”

The archers dropped a heartbeat before the icy blast.

The bear bellowed and there was another crash.

“It’s coming through!” came the cry from inside the gatehouse.

The men and women on either side of Galya reached for more arrows.

Too late. Galya pushed herself up.

Her mother was with a team at the back of the gatehouse roof, hands encased in heavy mitts, bracing themselves to lift the cauldrons of pitch that had been heating there.

Galya clattered down the steps, into the gatehouse. She was in time to see the gatekeepers leap clear as the great wheels and cogs of the lock mechanism shrieked and bent and tumbled free.

“It’s through!” one woman yelled.

Galya raced out onto the wall, joining the archers already stationed there.

The bear emerged from the tunnel and into a volley of burning arrows, fired from the wall and the roofs of the sheds and stables around the entry yard. Stacked hay bales, placed along the edges of the yard, sprang alight from flaming brands.

Where was the seraph? Galya could find no sense of her through the storm of the bear’s fury. She reached to light another arrow and almost fell. Frost spread across the battlements. The air when she gasped burned her lungs with cold. The wind lifted and snow swirled inside the walls, although the sky was still clear.

Jars of alcohol, trailing burning wicks, followed the arrows to burst over the bear’s flanks. Bellowing, it reared again, just as Galya’s mother cried “Now!” and boiling pitch poured down from the gatehouse.

The bear screamed. It fell to the ground, thrashing and rolling as more fire arrows set the oil alight. Cannons boomed from behind the barricades between the buildings. The bear, halfway to its feet, staggered, then surged aside. It smashed through the wall of a stable block. Archers leaped clear of the roof or tumbled with the wreckage. The bear spun, a geyser of icy breath shooting from its jaws. People cried out, caught in the blast, most of the hay bales were extinguished. One of the cannons burst with a whipcrack that cut across the din, felling its entire crew. Elsewhere, the rising wind picked up flames and made them dance from roof to roof.

“Keep shooting!” Galya cried to those beside her on the wall. She had to squint to keep the snow, driving harder now, out of her eyes. “Keep shooting, the seraph will come!” The seraph should have been there, not leaving them to die. Where was she?

“Fire!”

It was Irakliy, his squad of archers formed up across the road from the castle gate to the keep. Fire arrows peppered the bear’s face. It flailed away from the new assault, jaws snapping shut.

“Fire!”

A second volley followed the first. Scattered arrows still fell from the walls and buildings and gatehouse roof. Galya lit another arrow, nocked it clumsily and released. The temperature was still plummeting and she could no longer feel her hands. She fired again. The wind caught the arrow and turned it. It landed in amongst the wreckage of a smashed stable and set light to the straw on the floor beneath the rubble.

Galya cursed and lifted another arrow. Her eyes stung. The seraph wasn’t coming. A sob escaped her. She wanted nothing more than to throw down her weapon and curl herself up against the hurting cold. Others beside her started to lower theirs, giving in to despair. Galya’s vision blurred. Her tears froze almost instantly on her lashes.

The seraph couldn’t come. Her strength had failed her, at the last, and they were all going to die. Beyond the blizzard that surrounded the bear, it seemed like half the castle was aflame.

The bear bounded sideways, protecting its face, then straightened and crashed through the wall of smoldering bales between it and Irakliy’s archers. The archers scattered. The bear lashed about with its paws, flinging bodies into the air. Irakliy!

He had somehow kept his feet and his composure, managed to get himself behind the bear. He shouted a challenge, fired an arrow that lodged between the plates of the bear’s hip. It spun, furiously, back towards the entry yard. Irakliy stood alone in front it, another flaming arrow nocked to his bow.

Galya couldn’t force any sound from her throat. The cold seemed to have frozen her vocal cords.

A burning arrow sailed past the bear’s muzzle. It didn’t take its attention from Irakliy. Others were running, shouting, retrieving the wounded, trying to regroup at the next line of defences. Further away, Galya could see people trying to fight the spreading fires. She heard her mother’s voice, up on the gatehouse roof. Irakliy and the bear ignored it all. The monster gathered itself.

Galya hurled herself down the steps from the battlements, to do what she didn’t know, barely catching her footing with each stride.

The bear sprang. It covered half the distance to Irakliy in one bound, launched itself again.

Irakliy fired. The bear ducked into the shot, the arrow bouncing harmlessly off its brow. Irakliy dived aside, rolling and springing back to his feet. But the bear turned with terrifying speed. The back of its iron paw smacked into Irakliy’s chest.

Now Galya found her voice to scream.

Irakliy flew through the air, crashing into the side of a stable and crumpling limply to the ground. Galya leapt from the stairs. A snow-laden blast of wind unbalanced her and she landed awkwardly. Pain shot up her leg. She still had the unlit arrow in her hand. She stabbed it into the remnants of a burning hay bale. Yelling and waving the arrow above her head, she ran, lurching on her injured ankle, to put herself between Irakliy and the bear.

bear03-scetch

 

 

Only when its blue gaze fell on her did she realise what she had done. She thought her heart would burst with terror. This was the end.

The seraph had known she would die.

And live. But, if their seraph was not dead, then where was she? Why had she left them to face this beast by themselves?

Galya yelled, putting all her horror and defiance into her voice. The bear roared back.

And Galya heard an answering cry, that reached her mind but not her ears. The seraph!

She nocked her arrow, drew and released in a single motion. The burning shaft disappeared down the bear’s throat. It coughed, retched, eyes squeezing shut as it swayed. Its front legs gave way and its jaw smacked into the ground.

Galya gaped, unable to quite believe what she had just done.

The bear growled, a deep vibration that rumbled up her legs. It surged upward, rearing above her with a roar that rose to a near screech of outrage and disbelief. The wind rose with it, slashing at Galya’s face with splinters of ice, knocking her from her feet.

A jet of white-hot flame struck the bear full in the face. The seraph soared over Galya’s head, her many wings outstretched against the pale morning sky. She hit the bear in the chest with a thunderous crash of brass on iron, driving it back.

The bear dug its back feet into the ground, straining against the seraph’s momentum, halting its backwards slide just before it crashed into the gatehouse. It shoved back against the seraph and the two gigantic creatures grappled, braced on their hinds legs. Metal shrieked against metal.

The seraph twisted, pushing the bear down. Her crocodile jaws snapped at its neck. The bear flung her off, lifting the seraph completely off the ground and hurling her over the first row of sheds to crash down on the flaming buildings beyond. The seraph charged back, staggering the bear with her shoulder and then smashing it against the gatehouse. The bear recovered its balance and the combatants grappled once more, both of them bleeding – fiery gold and icy blue – their armoured hides dented and scored.

The seraph got hold of the bear’s left forelimb in her forepaws and jaws, slowly twisting it up and out at an angle that was far from natural. The bear lashed at the seraph’s unguarded neck and flank with its teeth and claws. Half its face was a melted ruin. It got hold of one of the seraph’s wings and ripped it from her back, grabbed for another.

Slowly, the seraph was bending backwards. Tortured metal squealed and popped. With awful certainty, Galya knew that any second her strength would fail. The bear’s assault became even more furious. The seraph staggered a step.

There was a shout from the gatehouse roof. Oksana was at the parapet, two others beside her, another cauldron of pitch tipping over. The pitch splashed over both the bear and the seraph. Oksana dropped a burning brand, lighting it. The bear roared in pain. The seraph renewed her grip on its leg. Fire didn’t hurt her.

Galya drew another arrow, running in with no thought to light it. The bear’s blue eye met hers as she raised her bow. She loosed. The bear jerked its head aside. Too slow. The arrow found its mark between the iron plates, puncturing its eye.

The distraction allowed the seraph to adjust her grasp and leverage. With a crack like one of the cannons bursting, the combatants broke suddenly apart. The bear threw back its head and howled. Where its left foreleg had been was only a mess of torn flesh and iron. Cold blood spurted from the wound. The bear dropped to its three remaining feet and fell back against the gatehouse. Galya’s arrow was still buried in its eye. The bear whined, gasping, its shock and grief pummeling her like an avalanche. Galya staggered, fell to one knee.

Still whining, the bear heaved itself into the gateway tunnel and was gone.

The seraph dropped the bear’s severed limb onto the ground. She looked back past her shoulder at Galya. There was grief from her, too. Her head drooped.

No, Galya thought. Not now! We won.

Carefully, painfully, the seraph lay herself down. Still holding Galya’s gaze, she put her head on her front paws.

The seraph heaved a long, gentle breath. The light of her amber eyes dimmed and she lay still.

Galya stayed, still on one knee, frozen on the outside and crumpling within. She was aware of people gathering round, their victory stillborn, their attention fixed on the seraph, wanting to disbelieve, to deny what they knew, all of them willing the seraph to rise again.

The seraph began to glow along the joints between her brass plates. The plates themselves began to glow, then char. Smoke billowed from her eyes and mouth and her many wounds as the seraph burned white hot, from the inside out.

Galya drew a wrenching breath, sobbed it out.

Someone found their voice. “The seraph is dead!”

Yes, thought Galya. And no. She caught her breath. The seraph’s grief was for the bear, not for herself. She had told them that she would die and live, and Galya could feel that it was true. Nadhzeya staggered through the wreckage and fell to her knees beside the burning body. She threw back her head and sobbed silently. Wait, Galya thought. Wait.

“Galya.”

Irakliy! She rose, and managed one step towards where he had fetched up. Her ankle gave out and she fell back to her knees. She crawled the rest of the way.

Irakliy was still prone. He grinned at her with bloody lips. One of his eyes was swollen shut. “We won.”

Galya’s hands fluttered over his chest. “Where are you hurt? Is anything broken?”

“Everywhere,” he said. “And a few ribs, I think.” He winced. “I can still move my arms and legs.” He raised one hand to demonstrate. Galya caught it in both of hers.

His good eye rolled around, as if he had lost her. He found her face again. “You should stand up straight you know, like Oksana. It’s good that you’re tall.”

Ridiculously, Galya felt her cheeks heat. She found herself laughing and sobbing at the same time. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.

“Galya! Galya!” It was her mother, pushing past the crowd that had gathered around the seraph’s final blaze.

Oksana hauled Galya to her feet, touched her face, her arms, hands fluttering the same way that Galya’s had over Irakliy.

“I’m not hurt,” Galya said, which wasn’t true, but was all she could think to say.

A stretcher was brought for Irakliy. Galya heard people around them weeping and praying. The seraph’s flames had burned bright and guttered quickly, the ashes of her body collapsing inwards.

Nadhzeya was still on her knees beside the pyre. She’s not dead, Galya thought. She extricated herself from her mother’s arms. “She’s not dead.”

She picked her way through the crowd, touched Nadzheya’s shoulder as she passed, saw the chaplain’s expression change to one of wonder. Galya felt a moment’s trepidation, stepping up to the dying flames, but she knew she would not be harmed. People reached out, intending to pull her away. Nadzheya rose to hold them back. Galya stepped onto the coals.

She saw it almost immediately, bright amid the ashes. She stooped and picked it up, cradling it to her chest. People gasped, who could see what she had. Galya turned, found her mother beside Nadzheya, Yoshin hugging her leg, and and showed them the tiny figure curled, nose to tail, in her arms. Its brass flanks rose and fell with the rapid, shallow breaths of an infant.

Nadhzeya’s cheeks were streaked with tears.

“Our seraph.”

_________________________________________________

Ian Mchugh’s short stories have appeared in publications including Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the clockwork Phoenix anthologies. He is a graduate of Clarion West and was the first Australian to win a Grand Prize in the Writers of the Future Contest.  His debut short story collection, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for Best Collection in Australia’s Aurealis Awards.  His full bibliography and links to read or hear his stories free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com.

 

 

 


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